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Music Review

Strutting yet subtle Hatfield hits stride

By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / September 17, 2008
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CAMBRIDGE - If Juliana Hatfield's fetchingly intimate concert Sunday at the Brattle Theatre made one wish for anything - besides even more of the Stonesy riffs that have come to anchor her songs - it was that she doesn't make good on her occasional threat to stop making music. Even the title of her latest self-released album, "How to Walk Away," which, granted, could apply to any number of things (a relationship or record label, for instance), hints at leaving something behind rather than holding on.

The fact of the matter is, Hatfield is a little like the Dwight Evans of indie-pop: Like the longtime Boston Red Sox outfielder of the 1970s and '80s whose career trajectory was the inverse of the typical athlete who peaks early, the Duxbury native has only gotten better - as a songwriter, musician, and singer - as she's gotten older.

A decade after being, briefly, an indie-rock darling, Hatfield settled into making increasingly moody, reflective albums that belied the little-girl chirp she reportedly hated (that's matured as well, thankfully, though one gets the sense, given new strutters like "Just Lust," that she still wishes it would do more). Over the course of a 100-minute show, Hatfield sounded like an artist who, at 41, is hitting a newfound stride and coming into a creative prime of newly discovered textures, subtlety, and inspiration.

That creative spark has even carried over in the form of a newly published autobiography, "When I Grow Up." But the two dozen or so, career-spanning tunes she surveyed - including her first hit, the bittersweet vignette "My Sister," which she performed solo with electric guitar during one of two encores - spoke frank, fuzzed-out volumes.

Hatfield performed "How to Walk Away" in its entirety, and with the exception of the cloying prom ballad "Remember November," the majority of the new songs glowed and gleamed, from the gentle ("Law of Nature") to the gritty ("Now I'm Gone"). When it came to attaining the sound of a stripped-down Shangri-La on the latter, Hatfield couldn't have chosen a better backing band than guitarist Mike Gent, bassist Ed Valauskas, and drummer Pete Caldes - otherwise known as the Gentlemen around these parts.

For all the spunky rocking out, however, Hatfield remained the fundamentally bashful, diffident performer she's always been: a tad tentative in the spotlight, turning away from the audience when she took an occasional solo on electric guitar, and at times awkwardly at odds with candid, plainspoken lyrics about dysfunction ("Choose Drugs") and isolation ("So Alone"). Call it a charming detraction.

Juliana Hatfield

At: Brattle Theatre, Sunday

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